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DUP backs Hargey decision not to 'name and shame' benefit cheats

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The Department for Communities will no longer publish details of people who commit benefit fraud

The Department for Communities will no longer publish details of people who commit benefit fraud

The Department for Communities will no longer publish details of people who commit benefit fraud

The DUP has backed a move from Communities Minister Deidre Hargey to stop naming people convicted of benefit fraud.

The Irish News has revealed the Sinn Fein minister has decided to stop sending press releases following convictions and publishing the names of those convicted on the Department for Communities (DfC) website.

However convictions can still be reported on if journalists are in court when the sentence is passed.

Ms Hargey said that the department "is not required to publish information relating to individual benefit convictions through the Courts, which is already in the public domain".

"I have therefore decided it is not necessary for my department to also publish this information. Instead, I have asked officials to consider how fraud and error information could be published in a more strategic way to reflect the wide range of work undertaken in this area," the South Belfast MLA said.

"This could include not just the work we do to protect public funds and reduce loss, but also as importantly, correcting underpayments and delivering outreach services to make sure everyone is receiving their full entitlement to benefit.”

Deirdre Hargey

It was revealed last summer that Northern Ireland was losing over £1m a week to benefit fraud.

The 2018/19 accounts for the DfC showed that £56.2m was spent on false benefit claims.

TUV leader Jim Allister raised concerns around the move, calling it a "retrograde step".

"The reality is with tightening margins in journalism, many of these cases will be missed by the press simply because of a lack of resources," he told The Irish News.

"Failing to continue the practice of publishing names sends out the wrong message to benefit cheats as it means that even if they are caught they are less likely to suffer the shame of friends and neighbours learning about their misdemeanour."

Jim Allister

DUP Communities Committee chair Paula Bradley said she was backing the move from the minister.

Mrs Bradley told the Belfast Telegraph that she thought the move was "fair enough" and would stop vulnerable people being punished a second time.

"There are often circumstances that we don't know about that can lead to people being convicted of benefit fraud," the North Belfast MLA said.

"It can happen to anyone, single parents, families in crisis, they don't deserve to be prosecuted twice. Who are we to judge?"

Mrs Bradley acknowledged that some people go out to deliberately commit benefit fraud and said they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

"Sometimes people make genuine mistakes and we can't just separate them like that," she said.

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DUP MLA Paula Bradley

DUP MLA Paula Bradley

DUP MLA Paula Bradley

SDLP Communities Committee member Mark H Durkan also welcomed the move and said that his party had tried to reduce the "naming and shaming" culture when Alex Attwood was Minister for Social Development.

He said it would be up to reporters in court to decide if the story was of significant public interest.

"There's much, much more money lost through error in the benefits system than there is through fraud," the Foyle MLA said.

"If the department showed as much zeal in eradicating errors as they did in pursuing people over petty instances of fraud it would suit them a lot better."

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SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan

PA

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan

Belfast Telegraph